Monday, August 16, 2010

The Black-White Achievement Gap: How Community Schools can Help

By Samantha Smyth, Summer Intern 2010

A recent report, “The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped”, from The Educational Testing Service, by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, explores the persistence of the Black-White achievement gap for students in the United States. The report highlights contributing factors to the fluctuations in the gap and attempts to find reasoning behind the narrowing of it between the 1970’s and the 1980’s. One of the strongest themes presented in the report is the decline of stable communities in which many poor Black families live. The researchers note the importance of “identifying approaches to uplift whole neighborhoods in terms of their economic and social capital, their school quality, and their recreational and health infrastructures.” (p. 37). The community school strategy provides the structure to facilitate these changes in the community.

Through our work at the Coalition, we have found that community schools seek to reinvigorate the communities (through family and community engagement) to help create a level playing field for all students and families. They do so through partnerships between local businesses and nonprofits, such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCAs, United Ways, etc. The schools do not undermine the role of teachers and faculty at schools, but rather hope to provide a level of transparency, and accountability of the community, for the achievement of its students. The ETS report shows “community links … offer an account for some of the observed differences in rates of improvement and virtually all of the differences in stagnation rates” (p. 20).

The report goes on to argue that the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ proverb is a key factor in closing the achievement gap. We agree. Communities and neighborhoods have lost the notion of a village in the United States - despite research that shows that without strong communities as support, children will not succeed academically or socially in schools. The Coalition and its partners know that for strong schools we need strong communities and vice versa. The report points out how true this is by showing that in the poorest neighborhoods there has been “an increasing concentration of poverty” (p. 19) leading to deteriorating conditions.

The report points out that impoverished neighborhoods lack social capital. This is a problem because “shortages of social capital in neighborhoods make efforts to improve the performance of schools difficult … even when there are serious efforts to improve schools and raise student achievement” (p. 33). Community schools serve as a vehicle for helping communities organize existing, and create more, social capital. For example, some community schools offer “safe passages” to school, in response to high levels of violence and gang activity where parents and students don’t feel safe walking to school.

Research provided in the report shows that early childhood education is a foundation that many children in poverty lack. The research “strengthens the proposition that much of the achievement gap opens before children enter the first grade” (p. 18). Community schools in Portland, OR; Tulsa, OK; and Albuquerque, NM are linking early childhood programs to the early grades, providing preschool and support for families in poverty with young children. Partnerships with the community provide such resources and opportunities.

Reducing the Black-White achievement gap is a formidable task, but community schools can help provide an integrated approach to ensuring all students receive quality education and access to social capital. Successful initiatives can be found in cities, such as Chicago and New York City, with large, concentrated communities of lower class families. Click here for research on community schools.

What do you think? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

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